Sebring 12-hour 2014 musings, race observations

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Some observations and insights gleaned from the week at Sebring International Raceway, site of the latest Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring and now run under the TUDOR United SportsCar Championship banner:

  • When it was green, it was entertaining racing. Toss out the first six hours that were caution-infested, and from hour seven on, it was some seriously impressive action between P2 and DP spec cars at the front, both GT classes and a hat tip in particular to James Gue and David Heinemeier Hansson, a pair of Silver-rated drivers who flew the flag for the beleaguered PC class in a two-stint lead battle after a series of unfortunate accidents in that category earlier in the race.
  • But Coldplay’s “Yellow” might have been the race’s perfect anthem. The 11 full-course cautions, including the last one thrown in the last hour for the stranded, off-pace and off-position Marsh Racing Corvette DP, did not allow the stars to shine for nearly as long as they should have. In total, more than five hours were spent behind the safety car.
  • And the yellows were too long. IMSA’s Scot Elkins told assembled media after the race they’ll work on improving the procedure to speed up yellow flag periods, which at the low end were anywhere from 20-25 minutes per. To be fair, Sebring’s 3.7-mile track length doesn’t help, with four-plus minute lap times under yellow.
  • Officiating/safety/etc. Without belaboring the point, the officiating mistakes admitted were unfortunate and unneeded for the series, particularly after the ending at Daytona. As for safety, the Ben Keating Viper fire was also tough to watch, but he mercifully escaped without injury.
  • David Bowie’s “Changes” was the entry list’s anthem. More than half the GT Daytona class lineups changed during the week (cars No. 13, 18, 19, 22, 27, 44, 45, 49, 71, 73, 94 and 555), seemingly by the hour depending on driver rankings. In a three-driver lineup, only one designated Platinum/Gold pro would be allowed, so that meant Silver-rated (technically amateur, with some exceptions) drivers were the hot ticket. Various inconsistencies exist within the four-tier system (these three plus Bronze) and it’s something that is probably going to be addressed going forward by the powers-that-be.
  • No P1? No problem. Early last week, I wrote that it could take some getting used to not having any P1 cars on track. With that the case, I can’t remember a Sebring in the last 15 years or so that wide-open where you had no idea how was going to win overall except for 2011, and the balance was strong between the P2 and DP-spec cars. On this front, it was entertaining and was building to an excellent crescendo before the last yellow.
  • The PC dilemma. A tough weekend for the second prototype class as a whole, as two major accidents and a high volume of spins by the amateur drivers stuck out more than the sublime qualifying lap turned in by former Indianapolis 500 pole sitter Bruno Junqueira on Friday. PC qualifying is can’t miss – Junqueira, Alex Tagliani, Colin Braun, Raphael Matos, Gunnar Jeannette, Martin Plowman, Renger van der Zande, Tom Kimber-Smith, Tonis Kasemets and Stephen Simpson are all high-quality pro drivers and put on a show on Friday. Some of the ams are better than others, but some of the spins – particularly by the No. 87 BAR1 Motorsports entry, which was involved in no less than 4 of the 11 yellows – were regrettable. Enforcing some sort of minimum standard for licensing should be something explored down the road. It might mean the cars end up with less damage, too.
  • Porsche’s ridiculously strong start. Regardless of how Porsche got its second straight GTLM win, with the officiating error that occurred, there’s still no denying that the new factory effort has come out of the gate very impressive. Porsche’s new 991-spec 911 RSR has had the measure of the field – only slightly but enough to make a difference – and been pacesetters at two widely different types of circuits. BMW had luck but not pace in Daytona; the reverse was true Saturday in Sebring. SRT Viper is close to its second win, and appears a fraction ahead of Corvette, as it sorts out its new C7.R. Ferrari is on the back foot after two devastating accidents for Matteo Malucelli.
  • Krohn’s standout drive. Krohn Racing delivered an outstanding performance to end fourth in GTLM; the privateer team is running an older Ferrari F458 Italia chassis and only doing the four NAEC rounds this year. Tracy Krohn and Nic Jonsson celebrated their 100th race together and third driver Andrea Bertolini proved an invaluable addition.
  • Magnus wins on track and on YouTube. Magnus Racing took the GTD class win, and also continued their usual shenanigans throughout the week in video. They began the week with the bizarre even by Magnus standards “Rediscovering SportsCar, Part 2,” and ended it with the classic Media Barons-style short sequence of videos called “the 12 Hours of Seefried,” named for new Sebring third driver Marco Seefried.
  • AIM on target in return. Second for the AIM Autosport Ferrari 458 Italia GT3, driven by the ex-Daytona Level 5 trio of Townsend Bell, Bill Sweedler and Jeff Segal and new recruit Maurizio Mediani, was better than expected considering the lateness of the program coming together. Good on the Andrew Bordin/Ian Willis-led crew for their efforts.
  • Rum Bum won the livery game. Can’t say as I’d seen a tie-dye car before until the new Rum Bum/Snow Racing Porsche 911 GT America showed up. Not sure how it’s perceived in photos, but I loved the look on site.
  • There’s a month until Long Beach, and 1.5 until Monterey. Long Beach next month will have a significantly reduced grid from the 63 at Sebring as it will only include P and GTLM class cars. All four classes return at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca in May, but in split P/GTLM and PC/GTD races.

Strong rebounds for Alex Palou, Chip Ganassi amid some disappointments in the Indy 500

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INDIANAPOLIS – Alex Palou had not turned a wheel wrong the entire Month of May at the Indy 500 until Rinus VeeKay turned a wheel into the Chip Ganassi Racing pole-sitter leaving pit road on Lap 94.

“There is nothing I could have done there,” Palou told NBC Sports. “It’s OK, when it is my fault or the team’s fault because everybody makes mistakes. But when there is nothing, you could have done differently there, it feels bad and feels bad for the team.”

Marcus Ericsson was a master at utilizing the “Tail of the Dragon” move that breaks the draft of the car behind him in the closing laps to win last year’s Indianapolis 500. On Sunday, however, the last of three red flags in the final 16 laps of the race had the popular driver from Sweden breathing fire after Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden beat him at his own game on the final lap to win the Indianapolis 500.

Despite the two disappointments, team owner Chip Ganassi was seen on pit road fist-bumping a member on his four-car team in this year’s Indianapolis 500 after his drivers finished second, fourth, sixth and seventh in the tightly contested race.

Those are pretty good results, but at the Indianapolis 500, there is just one winner and 32 losers.

“There is only one winner, but it was a hell of a show,” three-time Indianapolis 500 winner and Chip Ganassi Racing consultant Dario Franchitti told NBC Sports. “Alex was very fast, and he got absolutely caught out in somebody else’s wreck. There was nothing he could have done, but he and the 10 car, great recovery.

“Great recovery by all four cars because at half distance, we were not looking very good.”

After 92 laps, the first caution flew for Sting Ray Robb of Dale Coyne Racing hitting the Turn 1 wall.

During pit stops on Lap 94, Palou had left his stall when the second-place car driven by VeeKay ran into him, putting Palou’s Honda into the wall. The car sustained a damaged front wing, but the Chip Ganassi crew was able to get him back in the race on the lead lap but in 28th position.

Palou ultimately would fight his way to a fourth-place finish in a race the popular Spaniard could have won. His displeasure with VeeKay, whom he sarcastically called “a legend” on his team radio after the incident, was evident.

“The benefit of being on pole is you can drive straight and avoid crashes, and he was able to crash us on the side on pit lane, which is pretty tough to do, but he managed it,” Palou told NBC Sports. “Hopefully next year we are not beside him. Hopefully, next year we have a little better luck.”

Palou started on the pole and led 36 laps, just three fewer than race leader Pato O’Ward of Arrow McLaren Racing.

“We started really well, was managing the fuel as we wanted, our car was pretty good,” Palou said. “Our car wasn’t great, we dropped to P4 or P5, but we still had some good stuff.

“On the pit stop, the 21 (VeeKay) managed to clip us. Nothing we could have done there. It was not my team’s fault or my fault.

“We had to drop to the end. I’m happy we made it back to P4. We needed 50 more laps to make it happen, but it could have been a lot worse after that contact.

“I learned a lot, running up front at the beginning and in mid-pack and then the back. I learned a lot.

“It feels amazing when you win it and not so good when things go wrong. We were a bit lucky with so many restarts at the end to make it back to P4 so I’m happy with that.”

Palou said the front wing had to be changed and the toe-in was a bit off, but he still had a fast car.

In fact, his Honda was the best car at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway all month. His pole-winning four lap average speed of 234.217 miles per hour around the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway was a record for this fabled race.

Palou looked good throughout the race, before he had to scratch and claw and race his way back to the top-five after he restarted 28th.

In the Indianapolis 500, however, the best car doesn’t always win.

“It’s two years in a row that we were leading the race at the beginning and had to drop to last,” Palou said. “Maybe next year, we will start in the middle of the field and go on to win the race.

“I know he didn’t do it on purpose. It’s better to let that pass someday.”

Palou said the wild racing at the end was because the downforce package used in Sunday’s race means the drivers have to be aggressive. The front two cars can battle for the victory, but cars back in fourth or fifth place can’t help determine the outcome of the race.

That is when the “Tail of the Dragon” comes into the play.

Franchitti helped celebrate Ericsson’s win in 2022 with his “Tail of the Dragon” zigzag move – something he never had to do in any of his three Indianapolis 500 victories because they all finished under caution.

In 2023, however, IndyCar Race Control wants to make every attempt to finish the race under green, without going past the scheduled distance like NASCAR’s overtime rule.

Instead of extra laps, they stop the race with a red flag, to create a potential green-flag finish condition.

“You do what you have to do to win within the rules, and it’s within the rules, so you do it,” Franchitti said. “The race is 200 laps and there is a balance.

“Marcus did a great job on that restart and so did Josef. It was just the timing of who was where and that was it.

“If you knew it was going to go red, you would have hung back on the lap before.

“Brilliant job by the whole Ganassi organization because it wasn’t looking very good at half-distance.

“Full marks to Josef Newgarden and Team Penske.”

Franchitti is highly impressed by how well Ericsson works with CGR engineer Brad Goldberg and how close this combination came to winning the Indianapolis 500 two-years-in-a-row.

It would have been the first back-to-back Indy 500 winner since Helio Castroneves in 2001 and 2002.

“Oh, he’s a badass,” Franchitti said Ericsson. “He proved it last year. He is so calm all day. What more do you need? As a driver, he’s fast and so calm.”

Ericsson is typically in good spirits and jovial.

He was stern and direct on pit road after the race.

“I did everything right, I did an awesome restart, caught Josef off-guard and pulled away,” Ericsson said on pit lane. “It’s hard to pull away a full lap and he got me back.

“I’m mostly disappointed with the way he ended. I don’t think it was fair and safe to do that restart straight out of the pits on cold tires for everyone.

“To me, it was not a good way to end that race.

“Congrats to Josef. He didn’t do anything wrong. He is a worthy champion, but it shouldn’t have ended like that.”

Palou also didn’t understand the last restart, which was a one-start showdown.

“I know that we want to finish under green,” Palou said. “Maybe the last restart I did, I didn’t understand. It didn’t benefit the CGR team.

“I’m not very supportive of the last one, but anyway.”

Dixon called the red flags “a bit sketchy.”

“The red flags have become a theme to the end of the race, but sometimes they can catch you out,” Dixon said. “I know Marcus is frustrated with it.

“All we ask for is consistency. I think they will do better next time.

“It’s a tough race. People will do anything they can to win it and with how these reds fall, you have to be in the right place at the right time. The problem is when they throw a Red or don’t throw a Red dictates how the race will end.

“It’s a bloody hard race to win. Congrats to Josef Newgarden and to Team Penske.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500